Star-Advertiser: Bill to put solar farms on prime ag land elicits stiff opposition

By Sophie Cocke 

March 25, 2019

Developers would be allowed to put solar farms on prime agricultural land under a measure that has passed key legislative committees but is eliciting strong protest from Gov. David Ige’s cabinet while dividing farmers and environmental groups.

Critics say the bill was introduced to benefit Ho‘ohana Solar, a company that is trying to build a 52-megawatt solar farm on a 352-acre site in Kunia. Part of the project is slated for prime farmland, but building it there is currently prohibited under state law.

“It is a slippery slope we are going down, taking our prime ag land,” said Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Land, an environmental and community action group, during a joint Senate hearing before the Water and Land Committee and the Energy, Economic Development and Tourism Committee earlier this month. “We need to revitalize agriculture. We need to bring it back as a full-force industry and we can’t do that by decimating our best lands.”

Currently, developers and landowners can put utility-scale solar farms that feed energy into the islands’ electric grid on agricultural land so long as the parcel’s productivity rating is below “B.” House Bill 593 would allow solar farms to be placed on ag lands rated “A,” which the state has deemed as the best for growing crops.

The measure is opposed by the state Department of Agriculture, the state Office of Planning, the Hawaii Farm Bureau and the Hawaii Sierra Club. However, it has attracted the support of Richard Ha and Dean Okimoto, well-known farmers who in recent years shut down their crop operations.

Both Ha and Okimoto said the state needs to start melding farming with renewable-energy projects to boost the financial sustainability of agriculture.

Ho‘ohana Solar says it aims to do just that. Much of the state’s highest-rated ag lands have been fallow for a long time because farmers are having difficulty making the numbers work, said Larry Greene, project manager for the solar developer.

The company is owned by FCHQC Development, a joint venture of 174 Power Global and Forest City Sustainable Resources, according to filings with the Public Utilities Commission. The land is owned by Robinson Kunia Land LLC.

Greene said the project has been developed in partnership with farmers who would cohabit the land. Under an agreement with the company, farmers could lease land at below-market rates on a long-term basis with access to electricity, chillers, processing facilities and security.

Phyllis Shimabukuro- Geiser, director of the Department of Agriculture, testified in opposition to the bill, arguing that Hawaii’s top-rated ag lands are scarce. About 3 percent, or 56,000 acres of the 1.83 million acres of state lands classified as agricultural, are A-rated, according to the department.

Shimabukuro-Geiser couldn’t say how much of that is being farmed.

The bill has been controversial among lawmakers.

“I cannot speak more vehemently against this measure,” said Sen. Gil Riviere (D-Heeia-Laie-Waialua) as he cast his vote in opposition earlier this month. “In my mind it is an abomination. We are trying to save ag land. We go through this rigmarole for saving important ag land, promoting agriculture, getting more people on the land, farm to table, farm to school … . We use these fancy words because it cloaks us in this, ‘Oh, we’re doing the right thing.’

“This is what people want: People want fresh food, they want more local produce, and here, by the very definition of this bill, we are forestalling the future of our very best ag land. This is a travesty.”

Sen. Kai Kahele (D-Hilo), chairman of the Water and Land Committee, disagreed, saying Hawaii needs to find other financial models to support agriculture.

“I think we are providing a future for our children. I think the era of agriculture that we have been doing for the last 40 years since the plantation industry has closed has not been successful,” he said. “I would like a more strategic plan for the Department of Agriculture. I would like to see us look at this concept of blending renewable energy with agriculture on a limited scale to address the real challenges and concerns that local farmers all over Hawaii are having every day.”

A Senate version of the bill died earlier this session. The House version, after it crossed over to the Senate, notably was not assigned to the Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee, even though it deals squarely with agriculture. The bill likely would have died in that committee.

Kahele has amended the measure so that it can bypass conference committees, a final step in the legislative process in which key members of the House and Senate come together to negotiate bills. However, the bill still needs to be heard by the Senate Ways and Means Committee before going to the full Senate for a vote.